Edited by Mable Ivory
Six months ago, if someone were to ask any Brazilian about the possibility of a massive protest happening in 100 cities in Brazil, the idea would most certainly have been met with laughter.
After all, the country—set to host two major sporting events in the coming years and profiled internationally because of its economic growth—has not seen mass demonstrations on its streets since the 1990s, when citizens forced the impeachment of then-President Fernando Collor. President Dilma Rousseff, already prepared for her re-election campaign in 2014, certainly didn't expect these demonstrations.
However, Brazil has reached a turning point. The 20 centavos increase in bus fare in São Paulo was the catalyst for a series of demonstrations that soon spread throughout the nation—a clear indication that Brazil’s economic boom has not reached all the people and that citizens feel that they deserve more from their government. The demonstrations reached a climax on June 20, with more than 1 million people protesting in all of Brazil’s major cities.
Thus far, analysts, journalists and even activists are trying to define the nature of these protests, their true agenda and how long they will continue. There are still many undecided factors. However, several things remain clear: the so called "Brazilian Autumn" is a movement that has its main base in social media and it is a movement of mostly young and middle-class people, with a broad agenda. However, many Afro-Brazilians and working poor people are also joining the protests because their economic situation is even worse.
Unlike the Arab Spring and protests in Turkey, which have a very specific agenda, the protests in Brazil encompass many issues—a risk for their long-term sustainability—much like the Occupy Movement.
A finales de los ochenta, la prosperidad venezolana se desintegraba dejando en evidencia la ilusión que era. Parafraseando a José Ignacio Cabrujas, uno de los mejores analistas políticos que tuvo el país, sólo un mago podía ser llamado para devolverle la esperanza a una nación cada vez más frustrada. Pero a Carlos Andrés Pérez—quien resultó electo como presidente—se le acabaron los conejos del sombrero, y a falta de trucos ofreció realidades, entre ellas el aumento de la gasolina, y por consecuencia, del pasaje del transporte público.
Nadie lo vio venir, pero en la primera mañana en que el aumento de 25 centavos comenzó a regir, una revuelta popular iniciaría en los terminales de autobús de la periferia capitalina. Durante dos días, miles de personas dejaron correr su ira por las calles del centro político de Venezuela, y El Caracazo—nombre que recibió la protesta espontánea—se convertiría en un estigma político que marcó un hito en la historia nacional. Desde 1989, cuando ocurrió la manifestación, los precios de la gasolina sólo fueron aumentados una vez. Ni Hugo Chávez, con su inigualable carisma y conexión popular, se atrevió a tocar el desfasado valor del combustible.
Dos semanas atrás, en otros tiempos, otro país y otro contexto, un aumento en la tarifa del pasaje urbano también desataría la ira nacional. “La gota que derramó el vaso” repetían decenas de brasileños que salieron a las calles para rechazar el incremento—que en ciudades como São Paulo equivalía a USD 10 centavos. El himno del momento fue “no son sólo los 20 centavos” en alusión al precio en moneda local que los usuarios del transporte público debían pagar a más en cada viaje. Las frustraciones se mezclaron con las insatisfacciones, y lo que comenzó con una manifestación de calle derivó en un proceso de reclamos, tan complejo, que requirió de creatividad periodística para dar cobertura a las decenas de movilizaciones que, espontáneamente se siguen desplazando por las calles del país de la samba.
Acostumbrado a captar los titulares internacionales con fútbol, novelas y música, Brasil entró en la escena extranjera con notas sobre reclamos contra corrupción, malos servicios públicos, salud y educación deficiente. Economistas, sociólogos, analistas políticos y periodistas han intentado explicar cómo la población saboteó su propio pre estreno en la Copa Mundial—el desarrollo de la Copa de Confederaciones—reclamando menos estadios y más hospitales.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff met with governors and mayors on Monday to discuss the Pacto Nacional (National Pact), a package of reforms to improve public services that would respond to the wave of nationwide protests in Brazil over the past three weeks.
The president called for peace and proposed a national vote to amend the Brazilian constitution, which would be Brazil’s first political reform since 1988, when the current constitution was ratified at the end of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship. "The streets are telling us that the country wants quality public services, more effective measures to combat corruption...and responsive political representation," Rousseff said.
The National Pact's main objective is to create a Plano Nacional de Mobilidade Urbana (National Urban Mobility Plan) to expand Brazil’s existing public transportation system. In response to the protests, public transport fares were reduced in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro last week, and Rousseff pledged to invest 50 billion reais ($25 billion) in improving the country's transport infrastructure.
But Brazilians' grievances go beyond public transportation. The protests reached their peak last Thursday, when more than 1 million demonstrators took to the streets to demand greater investment in health and education, and to complain against corruption and high government spending on sporting events such as the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.
In addition to calling for a constitutional reform, Rousseff has laid out proposals to improve health services and impose tougher penalties for corruption. According to experts, amending the Brazilian constitution is a process that could take years, since it would require a public vote to debate the reforms.
Recent polls suggest that 75 percent of Brazilians are in favor of the protests, in which at least four people have already died. Due to rising inflation in the country, Rousseff's approval rating fell to 55 percent in June.
If you walk today through Complexo do Alemão—an enormous Rio de Janeiro shantytown, or favela, that was once the frequent scene of gun battles—you can see the changes. Last Christmas eve, the Brazilian Symphony performed a classical music concert in the community that, until recently, was so dangerous that police were afraid to enter it. People in the neighborhood, many of whom had never been to a concert before, were delighted.
To reach the neighborhood, you can now take the newly-installed cable car that resembles a gondola at an Alpine ski resort. Not only does it spare you the long climb in hot December weather—it offers a terrific view high above the 3.5 square kilometer neighborhood where 69,000 people live. The glass window reveals a giant and densely populated favela composed of poor houses unevenly distributed along narrow streets and small corridors. It is a unique and complex human map of haphazard paths and supply lines for water, electricity and gas.
The new cable car—which cost the Brazilian public $105 million—is part of the Brazilian federal government’s Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento (Growth Acceleration Program—PAC), a huge urbanization project that has taken place in Rio’s poor communities. The cable car was constructed to make Complexo do Alemão more accessible. “The lift is a blessing for the ones who live at the top of the community. Now we feel free,” said Teresinha Maria de Oliveira, a washerwoman who has lived in the favela for decades.
The government has also focused on housing, public health and sanitation, and improvements in these areas are clearly seen by anyone who visits Complexo do Alemão. Recently constructed apartment buildings, schools and health centers have changed the image of a place that for 30 years had been a living hell. But violence and fear are still powerful memories for most residents.
“We never knew when the conflicts would start,” remembered Mrs. Oliveira about the era when armed drug dealers dominated the neighborhood. “My sons couldn’t study. It was too dangerous to take them to school during the shootings between police and gangs,” she said.
“The love ran out. It’s going to turn into Turkey here,” chanted thousands of protestors as they moved down Rio Branco Avenue in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday evening, closing the downtown’s main thoroughfare to traffic as three police helicopters swam overhead.
When Rio’s protestors returned home from Rio’s State Legislative Assembly after one arrest near Central Station, it was to televised images of violence between police and protestors in São Paulo, where tear gas and rubber bullets were fired into a larger crowd and over 230 people were arrested.
Protests occurred in seven capital cities across Brazil yesterday in response to a ten-cent increase in bus and subway fares. However, such protests have been occurring around the country for several months now. In Porto Alegre in April, protests over the fare increase eventually led to its cancellation. Protesters say that the fare hike, a routine item in Brazilian bus company contracts, has become a tipping point for citizens bearing the cost of Brazil’s public improvements before seeing the benefit.
“If the quality of bus service was improving in Rio, this would make sense, but the buses are overcrowded, they run infrequently and they are unsafe,” said Natane Santos, 25, a law student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Students made up a healthy portion of the Rio protestors, although there were also participants from different social movements in the city and the occasional political flag. “People are protesting the bigger vision of what’s going on,” Santos continued. “I’m glad to be hearing people chanting tonight, ‘We’re over the World Cup; we want more money for health and education.’”
In recent months, Brazil has been portrayed increasingly as a beacon of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals in Latin America. It received international praise after the Conselho Nacional de Justiça (National Council of Justice—CNJ) released a decision ordering the legalization of same-sex marriage across the country. Soon after, it garnered worldwide attention when it hosted the 17th LGBT pride parade in São Paulo, widely considered to be the world’s largest.
Yet in striking similarity to Carnaval, lavish pride celebrations in Brazil have come to mask a far deeper and more complex history of violence and oppression.
In a milestone event that garnered far less media attention than those mentioned above, LGBTI activists gathered last month with a group of progressive lawmakers at the 10th National LGBT Seminar to discuss their most pressing needs. Their main concerns included increasing rates of violence and a rise in “fundamentalism and religious intolerance” that has begun to seriously threaten their already limited rights.
Specifically, they have come under attack following the election of Federal Deputy Pastor Marco Feliciano (Partido Social Cristão-São Paulo) to preside over the Chamber of Deputies’ Comissão de Direitos Humanos e Minorias (Committee on Human Rights and Minorities—CDHM). A staunchly anti-gay social conservative, Feliciano has made inflammatory statements, including a claim that “AIDS is the gay cancer,” and that Afro-Brazilians are cursed by their ethnic heritage.
After a busy two days in Rio de Janeiro, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden departed yesterday afternoon for Brasília, where he meets today with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Vice President Michel Temer. While Biden’s visit partly touched on issues of public security—he toured the Santa Marta favela, the first community in Rio to have an Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (Police Pacification Unit—UPP) installed—his chief objective was to press for expanded bilateral trade and investment ties.
Biden’s message to Brazil: the world is rapidly liberalizing trade and opening markets, and it’s time to keep up. On Wednesday, he urged Brazilians to “resist the urge in difficult economic times for protectionism.”
U.S. companies complain that Brazil has set up excessive trade barriers, a complicated tax system, local content requirements that give preference to Brazilian industry, and inadequate intellectual property rights. But Brazilians counter that U.S. monetary policy makes Brazilian products more expensive overseas, and that U.S. subsidies to its own farming sector limit competition from Brazil’s strong agricultural economy.
Despite the disagreements, Americans and Brazilians can point to plenty of successful collaborations. Brazilian aerospace conglomerate Embraer won a U.S. Air Force contract for 20 aircraft, officially authorized in March, and is cooperating with U.S.-based Boeing to develop the KC-390 military jet. Boeing, for its part, is a finalist for a 36-aircraft, $4 billion contract by the Brazilian Air Force.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s vast pre-salt reserves, coupled with the United States’ own discovery and extraction of shale gas, make the two energy powerhouses natural partners. Brazil’s auction this month of 142 oil blocks—the first licensing in five years—brought in $1.4 billion from various buyers, including U.S. firms ExxonMobil and Chevron. The Brazilian government is even moving up the first auction date of the pre-salt reserves to October to cope with the demand.
The National Council of Justice of Brazil, headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Joaquim Barbosa, ruled yesterday that government licensing offices cannot deny homosexual couples marriage licenses. The ruling is expected to accelerate a law legalizing same-sex marriage in the Brazilian Congress.
Basing their decision on the Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling that recognizes same-sex civil unions and guarantees homosexual and heterosexual couples the same rights under the constitution, the council ruling bars notary publics from denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The ruling also calls for government licensing offices to convert a civil union into a marriage if requested by the couple. While 14 of Brazil’s 27 states have already legalized same-sex marriage, national legislation has failed to pass the Brazilian Congress, which has a strong religious faction.
Barbosa rejected the notion that a congressional decision was necessary to begin issuing marriage licenses. "Are we going to require the approval of a new law by the Congress to put into effect the decision that was already taken by the Supreme Court? It makes no sense," he said on Tuesday, adding that the high court’s decision should be followed by the lower courts as it “is binding." A challenge of the council’s decision by the Supreme Court is not likely.
Should Congress act and pass legislation regarding same-sex marriage this year, Brazil would follow Argentina and Uruguay and become the third Latin American country to legalize gay marriage.
Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro marked the end of his three-day trip through Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil yesterday with a meeting in Brasilia with President Dilma Rousseff to highlight Venezuela’s strategic alliance with Brazil.
Maduro traveled to Mercosur member countries for his first trip post-presidential election in an effort to consolidate bilateral ties. In Uruguay, his first stop, the Venezuelan president met with President José Mujica, as well as former Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez, and pledged a “permanent” supply of petroleum. He continued on to Argentina, where he signed 11 bilateral agreements with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and gave a public address at a soccer stadium where he invoked the legacies of deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as well as deceased Argentine President Nestor Kirchner.
In Brazil, his final stop, Maduro received a firm endorsement from President Rousseff. The two leaders announced that Brazilian construction and engineering conglomerate Odebrecht will construct a 1.5-million-tonne-a-year urea plant in Venezuela. Venezuela is the second largest market, after Argentina, for Brazilian manufactured goods.
The international trip also carries domestic implications. Eduardo Viola, International Relations professor from Universidad de Brasilia said that “with this trip to Mercosur member countries whose leaders have demonstrated support, Maduro seeks to legitimize his situation, highly questionable in his country, not only because of the tight electoral results questioned by the opposition but also because of the grave economic and public safety conditions which are bleak.”
While an audit of Venezuelan election results began this week, nearly every nation in the region has accepted Maduro's presidency.
Roberto Azevêdo, Brazil’s current ambassador to the World Trade Organization (WTO), will succeed Pascal Lamy as the director-general of the organization on September 1, 2013, becoming the first Latin American to head the WTO since its creation in 1995. A formal announcement is expected today.
Azevêdo claimed the spot over Herminio Blanco, Mexico’s former Trade Minister and chief negotiator for the North America Free-Trade Agreement, in the final round of the six-month selection process which began in December. While Blanco had the support of the influential members such as the European Union, a majority of the WTO’s 159 member-states voted in favor of the Brazilian. Some analysts believe that Brazil’s active role in protecting the interests of developing countries during global trade negotiations contributed to Azevêdo’s popularity.
Azevêdo, who first joined the Permanent Mission of Brazil to the WTO in 1997, will face several challenges as director-general. He will be responsible for reviving the Doha round of talks, which were officially launched in 2001, and maintaining the organization’s relevance as regional and bilateral trade agreements grow in scope. Azevêdo will head his first biennial meeting in Bali, Indonesia this December.